The train steamed out of the Cortland, NY station, billowed an impossible cloud of smoke into the mild December morning and slowly gathered speed. Arnald was certain his fellow passengers could hear his pounding heart for he was off on quite an adventure. Sure, he'd been to Uncle Tony's house in Brooklyn with his family a few times, but that was nothing compared to this: at age seventeen, a train trip to Washington, D.C. by himself. He even had to change trains in Philadelphia, another place he'd never been.
In December 1942 the entire country seemed to be on the move. With the attack on Pearl Harbor just over a year ago, Americans readied themselves for President Roosevelt's prediction that "This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny." The Battle of Midway, the turning point in the Pacific theater, was just six months ago, and "Operation Torch," the Allied invasion of North Africa, had begun only a month prior.
The manifestation of America's commitment to the war effort was no more evident than in the train stations and aboard the rolling stock of its primary mode of transportation: passenger trains. Uniformed personnel outnumbered other passengers and, if on official business, took priority. Arnald's train was no different. The mood aboard was necessarily somber and businesslike but he was far too excited to notice.
The anticipation of the trip was almost too much to bear. Ever since hearing The United States Navy Band in concert at Cortland High School, he'd wanted to play music with them and had taken it upon himself to write and ask for an audition. They had agreed to hear him and scheduled the audition in Washington, D.C. over the Christmas break. He was now clattering through the Pennsylvania countryside filled with purpose, just hours from meeting his brother Armand.
A couple of years older, Armand had gotten a job with the Government Printing Office and had moved to Washington the year before. Arnald looked up to "Min" and missed his big brother. Although slightly smaller than the stocky and stronger Arnald, Min was tough. The two had played many years of "sandlot" football in the neighborhood and were a fearsome pair as they anchored the offensive and defensive lines. Min was a better student and had a knack for details that had been recognized and put to good use by the Government Printing Office. He was one of thousands of young men and women who were pouring into the city as the government war effort swelled the population of the formerly sleepy southern city on the Potomac River.
The mood of the country in 1942 dictated that all able-bodied young men enter military service and Ferdinand and Filomena were no different in their feelings. As Italian immigrants, Arnald's parents personified the American Dream. Ferdinand spent two years in the U. S. Army through two separate enlistments of a year each and was fiercely proud to be a naturalized American citizen. It was that large measure of unspoken pride with which he put Arnald on the train that morning.
As Arnald stepped off the train at Union Station in Washington, D.C., he was in awe. The building was cavernous. Hundreds and maybe thousands of people moved purposely through the echoing marble terminal and the sound of arriving and departing trains was deafening. He followed the flow of passengers towards the exit, somehow met Min, and was shepherded out onto the busy streets of the nation's capital. They then boarded a streetcar and rode to Min's rented room on Decatur Street, NW.
The audition was set for the following day and while Min was at work, Arnald hopped a streetcar to the Navy Yard. Nestled against the northern shore of the Anacostia River just upriver from its confluence with the Potomac River, the Navy Yard was just like every other military installation at the time. The fortress burst with officialdom and regiment and one would think it should have been somewhat intimidating to a seventeen-year old upstate New York boy, it was instead, immediately appealing. Any trepidation he may have harbored on the trip down evaporated and he entered the audition with a confidence and certainty that shone through his performance.
His acceptance came immediately. Arnald had passed the audition and was given a letter that he was to show to the draft induction board after he graduated from high school in June. It allowed him to bypass the draft and enter the Navy as a musician. The desire to serve his country would now dovetail perfectly with his aspirations to play music. He left the Navy Yard and boarded the evening streetcar back to Decatur Street buoyed by the prospect of a bright future.
As he traveled through the busy streets of Washington, he looked at the city through new eyes. Arnald was now more than just a visitor; he would soon be a resident of the rapidly growing city and a member of the United States Navy Band program. He was about to fulfill a dream he'd had since the night he'd heard the band on one of their tour stops at Cortland High School. It had been an evening of shear perfection. The sharp resplendence of the uniforms lent an air of precision to the performance, but the music was heaven-sent. Arnald had never heard music played as beautifully or professionally. He wanted nothing more than to play music with them and the fulfillment of that dream was now at hand.
Arnald wandered the streets of his soon-to-be new home, anxious to tell his big brother the exciting news. Min had the late shift at the Government Printing Office and didn't get off until midnight. At around eleven o'clock, Arnald found himself perched on the parapet of the Post Office Building wondering what his future in this city held and reflecting on his life to this point ...